REVIEW – Definitely, Maybe (2008)

Definitely, Maybe, in the mere mention of the title, signals the kind of ambivalence that drives this somewhat original spin on the romantic comedy turnstile—something that already needed a boost.  The film makes a solid effort to turn in a comedy that asks some honest and serious questions.  However, though they are not without some value, the questions seem inappropriate in regard to the developed themes, and obscure the conclusions reached by film’s end.

William Hays (Ryan Reynolds) is getting a divorce. His 10-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) has just learned about sex in school, and while she learns her way around her new anatomical vocabulary, she’s got some questions for papa regarding the story of her eventual birth.  Will, then, gets an idea—he’ll tell Maya the story of how he met her mom (gee, that sounds like a good idea for a TV show…no, wait…) through the tangled web of relationships he encountered when he first moved to New York.

While that reads in part more like something one might find late night on Showtime, the story doesn’t quite go there; it has its charms and is really very sweet.  It does deal in some more mature themes, planting it firmly within the PG-13 realm, so take the rating seriously.

It’s 1992.  Will moves to New York to fill a small role working on the campaign for the election of William Jefferson Clinton.  He leaves behind Emily (Elizabeth Banks), a white-bread working girl whom he sees as the love of his life, and to whom he promises to return after he has established himself as part of Clinton’s inner circle.  Reality imposes quickly, and Will finds himself making coffee and fetching toilet paper.  Amid his misadventures, Will meets the challenging, feisty copy girl April (Isla Fisher); and the sleek, fetching political writer Summer (Rachel Weisz).

The film’s early 90s setting makes for some cutesy moments.  Some of these, while they might land a chuckle, only underscore the moral ambivalence of the narrative.  Maya’s reaction to her father’s confused relationships earns a fair amount of scorn (what’s the male word for slut?), but the news of a prior smoking habit earns the kind of despairing rebuke that was once reserved for people who confess they used to run over cats.

The cast turns in an eclectic array of personality, particularly Isla Fisher, who somehow manages to make a somewhat shrewish copy girl interesting.  And Abigail Breslin deserves props if only for the fact that she’s not Dakota Fanning.  She’s still acting within the amiable range of the cute-little-girl, but there’s much more interesting potential there, and it’s a missed opportunity not to explore that range here.  This is, however, Will’s story, and it’s his arc that warrants the most scrutiny.

You quickly learn that Will is an ambitious fellow.  He carries lofty dreams tucked under his arms; a fledgling understudy to the world of political idealism, ready to take his place among the people that change the world.  The bright shining hope to which Will aspires finds an anchor in the person of Bill Clinton.  As Will moves in and out of the lives of his love interests over the years, the film returns from time to time to touch on Clinton’s evolving moral failures, and we watch Will’s idealism crumble right along with the former president’s character.  Combined with the increasing complication of his love life, Will’s optimism fades.

But, he assures Maya, it all has a happy ending.  With the moral clarity of which only 10-year-olds seem capable in this universe, Maya’s reply rings with a despondent curse—you’re getting divorced from my mother, she tells Will, how can this end happily?

Here’s where critical interpretation will diverge among audiences.  Will’s fall from idealism, including the break-up of his marriage (which, in an awkward piece of decision making among the filmmakers, receives no explanation), stems from placing his hope in the fragile fabric of human character.  While it eschews any Gospel correlations, what Definitely, Maybe does deliver is a fairy tale, one that might want its audience to consider, and consider well, the things in which it chooses to place its hope.  As long as Will’s hope remains fixed on breakable clay, his world will continue to fall to pieces.

Direction is never so easily determined in the wake of divorce.  Yet the film’s final gesture suggests that Will does learn he needs something with more solidarity to set his compass to true north.  In all the time he spends off course, he leaves behind a trail of cracked dreams and wounded hearts.  What Will longs for is wholeness.  And while the film does weave us to a requisite happier end before the curtain falls, it gives at least a cursory nod to his need for something bigger than mere dreams and ambition; something that outlasts the failings of flawed heroes.

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